The Connecticut Welcome Center at the service area on I-95 in Darien. Mimi Griffith photo

First impressions count.  

If you’re going on a job interview you dress your best, put on a smile and try to be charming.  The same rule applies to transportation.

Arrive at any airport or train station, and you immediately start forming opinions of your destination.  Is it clean and modern, warm and welcoming?  How does the place make me feel?  Are the locals proud of themselves?

Well, first impressions also count when you are driving.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” said the perky young lady behind the Tourism Desk at the first service area in New Jersey when we pulled off Interstate 80 recently when driving from Pennsylvania.  I was just looking for the rest room, but this staffer made me feel welcome, offering me maps and brochures and standing ready to answer any questions I might have about the Garden State. 

I got the same vibe awhile back arriving in Maryland, driving south on I-95 where a big, mall-sized rest area in the median offered me about a dozen restaurant choices, relatively cheap gas and room to stretch my legs.  On the far side of the building there was parking for about 50 trucks and electric hook-ups so they didn’t need to idle their refrigerator units. 

In Virginia, the tourist center looked like a mini-Monticello and the helpful staffers were ready to answer all of our questions about our planned tour of Civil War battlefields.  These local guys were better than TripAdvisor and the AAA Guidebook.

Contrast that with the first impression we give east-bound tourists arriving on I-95 in Connecticut. 

On crossing the New York state line, motorists will immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, for no apparent reason, no matter the time of day.  No accidents — just normal conditions on our major interstates.

A brochure rack in the Darien service area. Mimi Griffith Photo

The large electronic sign flashes “Delays:  Exit 2 -16, next 16 miles” as visitors inch along over the Mianus River Bridge, site of the 1983 collapse of a span that killed three.  

“Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat.  

“Not even close,” moans Dad, wondering if they’ll ever get to the Cape.  “I just hate Connecticut traffic.”  

“But Dad, I gotta go,” says Junior.  “I’ve been ‘holding it ever since The Bronx!”

Then, like a mirage on the horizon, Dad sees hope:  not a break in the endless traffic, but the state’s first service area in Darien.  “Hang on Junior, we’re stopping in just a minute.

Not to buy gasoline, of course.  You never want to buy gasoline in Connecticut.  Prices are 30 cents a gallon higher at the service area than on local roads. No, these folks are in the tourist equivalent of “fly-over” mode.  They’re just stopping to “rest” and maybe pick up a map and a snack.

Arriving at the shiny new service area, complete with a Tesla charging station, they are met with such unique culinary options as McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts.   Long gone are the eateries “It’s Sugar,” “Cheese Boy”.  Yummy.

Inside there is a single masked staffer behind plexiglass at the information booth around the corner from a rack of brochures.  But he’s only there Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  We ask for a map of Connecticut and all he has is one showing motorcycle tours. 

First impressions do count.  And the first impressions we give visitors to our state aren’t as positive as they should be, are they?

Jim Cameron | Columnist

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.